home-rule

The Hands

A strange undercurrent of power, coercion, dominance and submission crackles beneath the seemingly placid surface of this deeply weird tale.

Shannon was waiting at the threshold of the patio, balancing a metal tray of shrimp between her shoulder and her wrist.

“It’s very important work, I think,” said the first man.

“Yes, well, of course it has to be,” said the second. “I’m glad it’s in his hands.”

“Excuse me?” Shannon said. She pressed up closer to the men so that the sharp edge of her tray was at their necks. “Excuse me,” she said again. “May I sneak past you?”

The men stared at her for a moment with expressions like she’d just pulled a gun. The first selected a shrimp with his fingers, then both stepped into the house.

“Don’t know why she couldn’t wait,” said the first. “A little cruel, don’t you think?”

“She’s new enough,” said the second. “Let it go.”

Shannon crossed through, and onto the patio. It was choked with decorations: plastic pumpkins, cornucopias, a wooden table for twelve set with manikins decked out so fully in pilgrim costumes that she couldn’t bear to look at them. Everyone in town was there, more people than she could ever hope to recognize. Their nice dress was the same cut as their lab coats, only darker.

Helena emerged from the fog of voices at Shannon’s left.

“Oh, there you are!” she called. “Here, here, here!”

She grabbed Shannon’s free elbow and dragged her down the stepping stones, which tonight were lit by flimsy plastic candy corns.

“My husband,” Helena said, pausing every few moments to press a sharp heel on the center of each steppingstone, “has been looking for you all night.”

Shannon wrenched her elbow from Helena’s grasp so as not to drop her shrimp into the grass. Helena’s husband was her boss, the lab president. He asked that Shannon call him Mr. President.

“Do you know what he wants?” Shannon asked.

She was here tonight on his orders. She was his secretary. She had helped to decorate and taken people’s names down at the door.

“Oh, well,” Helena said. “You know how he can be.”

She spun around to hold her face in front of Shannon’s. It was large. Her skin was as taught as a nitrile glove and Shannon could smell the sour on her breath.

“Won’t tell you a thing till he thinks you need to know,” Helena said. She smiled, but she couldn’t look Shannon in the eye.

She continued on to a green plastic lawn table near the fence. Her husband and the Russian woman who’d just moved into town sat around it in unmatched chairs, neither speaking.

“Here she is, I found her,” Helena announced.

“Shrimp?” Shannon asked them both, shifting the tray from her shoulder to both hands.

“No, thank you,” Helena’s husband said.

“Would you like to set the tray down?” the Russian asked. Shannon was surprised at how light an accent she had, compared to what people said of her, at least. She spoke like a Midwesterner, just a little bit slower and with less bounce.

“Well,” Shannon said, not wanting to reveal she was studying the Russian’s voice. She couldn’t think of how to complete her sentence.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Helena cut in. “I’m so sorry, I hardly noticed, I didn’t realize. Yes, go set the tray down first, go absolutely. How cruel of me to neglect you like that!”

“Where should I put it?”

“Over by the table would be fine,” Helena said. She swept an arm toward the long table with the manikins. Casserole dishes and crock pots crowded the top.

“I’ll be right back, then,” Shannon said, bowing her head to Helena’s husband in apology.

The table was so covered in food that Shannon had to rearrange everything to make room for her tray. She set it atop a pan of half finished, breadcrumb-crusted macaroni and cheese and set about pushing dishes toward the center of the table. Even with this, there wasn’t quite space for the shrimp, and she had to move one pilgrim manikin’s hands from the table and set the shrimp where he should have had a plate. 

There was something unnerving about lifting the plastic hands — how realistically they were molded, down to the Plexiglas that took the place of their fingernails. Shannon could imagine the care they had been crafted with: someone attending to every detail. Who? 

She wished she didn’t have to touch them.

Aside from this, it was nice to set the food down. People grabbed food from around her without asking anything. How great it was, temporarily, not to be noticed. How easy it would be to not exist …

When she returned to the plastic table by the fence, Helena’s voice had grown louder: Her husband would likely ask Shannon to take her drink away soon.

“In Paris in the War!” Helena said. “I’d have been terrified! That man was evil, I can tell you that much.”

The Russian lowered her head.

“You do become used to it,” she said.

“Yes, but still! Can I tell you something honestly, as friends?” Helena said. She didn’t wait for confirmation. “I was all the way out here, away from everything, and were it not for this man …”

She reached to pat her husband’s collar. Her fingers fell on his neck. He stiffened up.

“With all that we do, I don’t know if we’d still be here…”

They were silent for a moment, till her husband caught sight of Shannon standing right next to them.

“Shannon,” he said. “Good, you’re back. I needed you for something.”

Helena shook as though woken from a dream. Her husband stood and pushed his chair under the table.

“Excuse us, ladies,” he said. “We’ve got a little bit of business to attend to. Shouldn’t take us too long at all. I’ll be right back to humor you.”

“You have no reason to worry,” the Russian said.

“We won’t,” Helena’s husband said.

Helena blushed.

He pushed off toward the house. Shannon knew he expected her to follow. She maneuvered through the crowd after him, cutting sometimes between people in conversation.

“Mr. President,” she called when she caught up to him beside the serving table. “Mr. President, what did you want me for?”

“We can’t talk about it here,” he said. She had to jog to keep up. “Not everyone here is authorized to hear.” He continued on toward the house, holding his hand up to let people approaching him know he wouldn’t talk. 

Shannon tried to walk as close to him as she could, so that some of his importance might spread to her. She was unsure how serious the president was about the secrecy of whatever it was they were doing. It seemed like a joke, but she’d needed federal security clearance just to apply for this job. The party itself was considered a state secret.

Inside his house a few elderly women were chatting, and the visiting General was eyeing portraits on the wall. Slight discolorations in the wood of the buffet table indicated that items of value had been hidden away. 

The president turned down a hallway that Shannon guessed went to the bedrooms. The walls were lined with framed photos of him and Helena in wool jackets with snow-capped mountains visible in the distance behind them, or miniature in the corner of the frame, the sea and a pastel cityscape stretching beyond them. 

Shannon had never seen the sea before. She thought that it was silent.

“Where are we going, Mr. President?”

He didn’t answer at first but opened what looked to be a closet door. A thin set of concrete stairs spiraled down behind it. He stepped down a few of them, then answered: “Now that I’ve got you at the house, I figured I might show you something special. Don’t worry, it’s not much. I just thought it might help you with your job later.”

Shannon followed him down the stairs. The walls were of a mortared cinder block, and they gave off a coolness that hummed. The president unlocked a deadbolt at the bottom and they entered a larger concrete room, one stretching past visibility in both directions. 

Shannon had been to the tunnels before — they connected her office to the bus stop — but she’d not known they connected to the houses. She hoped none connected to her home.

The president went only a yard into the tunnel. He unlocked the first door on the right and ushered Shannon in before him. This, too, was cold.

It was a conference room of some sort. The concrete walls were hidden behind floral wallpaper with a repeating ivy motif. A painted garden hung along one side in imitation of a window. A table — the same kind as the serving table upstairs — filled up most of the room, its wood veneer appearing warm in the artificial light. They had to be somewhere underneath the patio. A murmur of the party leaked in from above.

“Sit,” said Mr. President. “Please, sit.”

Shannon took the seat two away from the end and studied the garden scene while the president searched through a large metal cabinet opposite the door. The garden couldn’t have been local. Only shortgrass, wheat, and wetlands lived out this way, and this garden was a tangle of purple flowers and broad leaves. It looked so fanciful, like it could never in natural, normal life exist. 

The president was taking his time in the metal cabinet, shuffling cardboard boxes and mumbling to himself.

Shannon took a moment to shut her eyes and let the murmurs above wash over her. This was the first time she’d been able to sit all night. She’d need a glass of water when she went back above ground. That’s all that was bothering her now: She needed water. One sip alone would be enough to loosen her chest. 

She was just a few yards away from the whole party. The president was likely pulling out another loyalty oath. He had a thing for having employees sign them, the rumor being he’d had some assistants poached by labs nearer the coast. Shannon could take her time reading over whatever agreement he made her sign, both so he’d feel safe about it and so she could have a little time to catch her breath. It was something she could laugh about later: the president was so paranoid he couldn’t enjoy his own Thanksgiving. Soon enough she’d meet a nice co-worker. She’d have somebody to make jokes with.

When the president turned around he was holding a leather suitcase.

“Hands off the table,” he said. “Now, trust me, you’ll regret it real soon if you don’t.”

She put her hands on her lap and he unlatched the suitcase. Crouching a bit, he poured its contents across the table. 

They were fingers: fingers unattached to any hands, fingers of every race and size, some with rings of gold wrapped tight around them, some with deep black bruises underneath their nails. 

Shannon backed away, afraid the fingers might spill onto her lap, but because of the size of the room she could only go one chair length back.

“Please,” said the president. “Please.”

Shannon said nothing but watched him. What was he doing to her? He didn’t even look in her direction.

“They’re just something I picked up in my years of travel,” he said as he turned back to the metal closet. “You might go ahead and call it research, but…”

He turned around with a terracotta pot cradled in his arms.

“You’ve yet to see my favorite part,” he said.

He was smiling. Shannon couldn’t watch his eyes, only his teeth. He’d had them whitened.

He brushed some fingers from the edge of the table, letting a few fall to the carpeted floor. They made no sound. Not even a plop. He set the pot on the clean part of the table then set about examining the fingers, lifting them from the table and measuring each individually against his own.

“Some are better than others, of course,” he said. But it took him no more than a minute to select four long ones and a thumb. He pressed each firmly into the dirt of the pot so they resembled a mismatched hand reaching out from the potted earth. He pulled another pot from the closet and did the same. 

Two hands set beside each other, frozen in the dirt.

“Now this,” said the president, “this is what excites me.”

He reached near the bottom of each pot and pulled a small lever on each that Shannon had not seen before. The fingers began wriggling like either inchworms, viewed individually, or complete hands struggling to escape the dirt, viewed as a whole. Clumps of soil shifted to make room for the moving hands, but they didn’t rise so much as an inch from the dirt. They simply wriggled.

Shannon listened to the murmur above her, trying to locate words. She couldn’t turn her eyes from the hands, they were so mesmerizing, but maybe she could turn away from the sound, the jittering squeal equal parts mechanical and organic, some impossible mix of a mouse and a rusty typewriter. She tried to picture the party above her but could imagine only distance — fifteen feet of dirt and solid concrete, and she was stuck underneath with these wriggling hands.

“Why are you showing me this?” she asked. It hurt to speak. She realized that she had lost her breath.

“Well, for one thing I like them,” said the president. He smiled again, as though to show he were telling the truth. “But of course that isn’t all of it,” he continued. “This isn’t what you’re asking.”

He let his smile falter some. Here was his serious face, which he wore whenever he called her to his office. His lips were pressed so far in on themselves they disappeared. It was a normal expression. She saw it every day. She was comfortable with it.

“No,” he said. “To be honest with you, it’s because I know you won’t tell a soul. Who would believe you, Shannon? No, come Monday you’ll be back in my office as usual, doing whatever it is I make you do. You’re reliable like that.”

Surely Mr. President was wrong. There were maybe a hundred people above them now: she could hear the soft and friendly murmur of their voices. She could tell them what the president had done, and they’d be shocked as well. They would believe her. They wouldn’t want to work for a man who kept live fingers in his house. They would be just as afraid.

But the president was right. She didn’t tell a soul. That Monday she was early to the office, and when he asked her to fetch him some test tubes from the fridge she did, even though they were cold as plastic fingers.

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Jakob Konger

Jakob Konger

Jakob Konger is from Tampa, Florida, a mostly fictional place. Find out more at https://konger.moe.

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